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The Mythology of Exceptionalism

Okay, nerds, get ready to be offended. Ready? Go read this post by David P. Goldman. Deep breaths, folks.

Let’s skip past the bit about “obese, pimply-faced losers” and the fairly childish vitriol that accompanies it. The guy doesn’t like Harry Potter – fine. It doesn’t make him Hitler. I’ve ranted at length about such snobs and their churlish insistence upon their flavor of storytelling’s superiority over some other version, and I’ve no need to do so again. What I want to focus on here is the inherent hypocrisy and ignorance of Goldman’s central thesis.

Goldman takes aim specifically at Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as espoused by his classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Goldman dislikes it, and in his article he claims the following:

Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of  a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false.

He then goes on to claim that both the Bible and Chinese narrative lack heroes in this sense – in that latter instance, they are instead “a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.” Goldman seems to insist that China, rather than being ruled by a hereditary aristocracy, was instead ruled by mandarins (bureaucrats) and compares it to being ruled by the equivalent of the Havard faculty. This dovetails nicely with his opinion of the Biblical “hero”, who is not god-like, but rather earnest and hardworking and hardly qualifying as heroic.

Okay, so first off, this entire premise of the argument is bunk, pure and simple. The supposition that Campbell’s thesis is plainly incorrect and that his heroic mythology

Nope, no god-like power here! No siree!

Nope, no god-like power here! No siree! Just a hard-working schlub like you and me!

isn’t found in the Bible or in Chinese folklore is patently false, demonstrating both a misunderstanding of Campbell and betraying a blind prejudice on Goldman’s part. Not only is the Campbellian monomyth entirely supported by both the Bible and Chinese folklore, the latter is directly cited in Campbell’s work on many occasions (it seems as though the depth of Goldman’s knowledge of Chinese myth is limited to kung fu movies). In the Bible’s case, the monomyth is repeated time and time again. Take the story of Moses: Moses is called to adventure when he flees into the wasteland. He crosses into the magical world at the foot of the burning bush, and he returns later to Pharaoh’s court bearing knowledge and power. This happens to Jonah, to Abraham, to Job, to Paul, and to countless other prophets and heroes that fill the Bible through both testaments. To say Campbell was antisemitic is fine (he was disdainful of the Jewish religion, certainly), but he did insist upon the power of their folklore, which is in large part what the Bible is made up of.

Goldman, here, is quibbling over the details and missing the larger narrative. Yes, Moses doesn’t have god-like power himself – he is granted it by God. That, however, isn’t substantially different from the power granted to King Arthur when he draws the sword in the stone or to Theseus when he takes Ariadne’s string into the labyrinth. In all monomyths, the power granted to the heroes does not originate in themselves, per se, but rather are rewards granted to them for their behavior and, frequently also, their lineage. The fact that Moses is a descendant of Abraham, though, and therefore special by blood (and this is of significant import in Exodus) seems to elude Goldman. We could play the same game with Chinese folklore and myth (fact: the Chinese maintained a hereditary aristocracy from about 1000 BC until 1911), but I feel I’ve made my point here.

The underlying reason for Goldman’s distaste for Campbell and, by extension, modern fantasy literature has less to do with Campbell’s work and more to do with Goldman’s willful blindness to the clear and apparent similarities Christianity has with other stories. Goldman wishes Christianity to be special and unique and, while it certainly has unique qualities, it is structurally similar enough to all other mythology to make it part of the broad tapestry that makes up Campbell’s theory. Heroes are us, only better. Period. The only thing that changes is what constitutes “better.” For the ancient Greeks, they wanted heroes of strength and cleverness who were willing to stand up to the tyranny of their capricious gods. For the Chinese, they want humility and filial piety, which means their heroes follow slightly different paths, but all well within the bounds of the monomyth. In the Bible, the Christian hero is selfless and faithful, obeying their God and sacrificing their well-being for the well-being of their people. It’s the same sales pitch, just with a different product to sell.

That, though, is upsetting to guys like Goldman – real America’s Americans who believe in Jesus and Built the Railroads (on Irish and Chinese backs). The theory that their deeply-held stories are, in actuality, just another version of a story as old as humanity itself and in no way exceptional, is hard to swallow. Why, then he’d be no better than we “obese, pimply-faced losers,” clinging just as tightly to his own personal fairy stories to make him feel better about himself. We can’t have that, now can we?

Cool Like Bond

Before we go any further, let me alert you to Adele singing the theme song to the new Bond flick.

If you don’t think that’s awesome, it’s probably best for all of us if you leave the room.

For as long as I can remember, the word ‘cool’ has been defined by a single, solitary figure: James Bond. Even before I was fully cognizant of that character’s influence over my development, it was still there. Bond was the lone, heroic, confident, unflappable individual that summed up what my idea of ‘cool’ was. I was pretending to be characters like him even before I can remember seeing a movie about him.

Corollary : Does Bond make the Astin Martin cool, or does the Astin Martin make Bond cool?

This, of course, leads one to an inevitable Chicken and the Egg problem: which came first for me, Bond or my idea of cool? To put on my psychology hat for a second (psychologists, please understand that my studies in psych are rather limited –  just enough to get me into trouble, as per usual), the answer to this question depends on whether or not you buy into Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious. In brief, it’s the idea that all of us share a kind of unconscious pool of psychic information that, while we aren’t consciously aware of it, is somehow inherited or passed along by our ancestors and joins us with the rest of humanity.

If you buy Jung’s theory (and lots of people do), then Bond is very much plumbing ‘the Hero’ Jungian Archetype from the depths of our collective psyche. He is the guy who’s iron willpower, courage, and inimitable skill enables him to prove his worth and improve the world. Anyone who is predisposed to admiring the ‘hero’ or similar ideas would be drawn to Bond, since he is the concentration of those traits.

That’s not all there is to him, though. Bond isn’t cool because he defeats bad guys and outwits villains – every hero does that, and not all heroes are cool. Bond has something else going on, too. He’s both sophisticated and down-to-earth, both military and civilian, both educated and street-smart. He’s able to seamlessly adapt to any social situation and comes off well in any contest. In a world full of social stratification, cliques, and labels that limit one’s confidence, Bond cuts through them all. He is cool in all possible situations, even when out of his depth, in trouble, or suffering. He forces guys to compliment him while they are torturing him. His enemies admire his skill even while trying to destroy him. His boss loves him even as he is breaking very, very important and sacred rules of engagement. Bond is, essentially, the essence of freedom – able to go where he wishes, do what he wishes, and come out of it spotless and making out with a gorgeous woman on a life raft. Few other heroes can do this with the same level of panache.

I find it interesting, sometimes, the extent to which Bond can get away with doing and saying things that other characters couldn’t. When Pierce Brosnan manages to fall faster than a falling plane in Goldeneye, we immediately know (or should know) that he is violating the laws of physics as demonstrated by Galileo. More than any other hero, though, Bond can get away with this without too many of us rolling our eyes. Why? Well, our subconscious requires him to succeed so that we may invest our own egos in his behavior. We are just so willing to be impressed by a character we have defined, at essence, as impressive that we must forgive the story it’s slights against reality so we can escape with him. This is what I have come to call the Coolness:Reality Ratio. The cooler the character is (i.e. the more he fills in some insecurity or gap in our own emotional or psychological needs and/or weaknesses), the more he can get away with before we call BS on the whole affair. Now, I don’t have a specific numbering system set in place, but it can be safely assumed that James Bond, more than any other character I can think of, has a ratio that’s off the charts.

It is telling, then, that one of the novels I’m trying to sell (The Oldest Trick, set in Alandar) is my attempt at creating a Bond-like character in the person of Tyvian Reldamar, criminal mastermind and smuggler forced to reform his ways by a conscience-reinforcing magic ring. I’m trying, somehow, to catch a bit of that lightning that pulses through Bond’s blood and bottle it up in a fantasy setting. I hope I’ve been successful, but only time will truly tell. In the meantime, I’m going to be humming the tune to “Skyfall” while concocting additional adventures for my own Bond-esque hero to negotiate with skill, wit, and panache.

What’s a Hero?

I just finished the fifth book of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. I don’t remember the precise title (Death Masks?), but that hardly matters since the titles are the least interesting or memorable parts of the series. They are wonderful fun, each and every one of them, and while they lack in some areas (Butcher’s a bit predictable at times), I recommend them to anyone looking for some light reading in the Urban/Contemporary Fantasy genre.

Anyway, the reason I bring Butcher up is that his main character, Harry Dresden, is confronted by an otherworldly

Yeah…but why? It’s not even his planet!

spirit who, as payment for services rendered, asks him for an honest answer to a question: “Why do you do what you do?” In other words, why does Harry, powerful wizard, bother living his life as a protector of the mortal world, which puts him in harm’s way, hurts his finances, and ruins his personal relationships. In essence, the spirit asks Harry why he is a hero. The best part?

Harry doesn’t know the answer.

As most stories – and fantasy/scifi stories in particular – have a hero of some kind, this is a question that really needs to be pondered by any writer in the genre. We too often, I feel, simply accept the actions of the hero at face value. We shrug our shoulders and give the ol’ Uncle Ben speech about ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. Does it? Does it have to? I don’t think so. There’s no reason why Superman has to do the stuff he does – there are literally infinite excuses to be used to get out of helping strangers. The vast majority of humanity uses them every day, all the time; I’m no exception and neither, probably, are you. Even if we do help, it is in contained and focused ways – we give to this charity, but not to the poor directly; we’ll help people move, but we won’t care for their pets; we’ll make sure a drunk friend gets home okay, but we won’t confront him or her about their drinking problem.

I mean, ask yourself: if you could fly and stop bullets with your chest and do all the stuff superman does, would you spend all your time flying around stopping crime? If not, how much time would you spend? How long would you keep it up? Be honest with yourself.

A hero – by which I mean a real hero and not somebody we dub a hero due to some fluke of fortune – is something rare and special. I see no reason we should consider such people less rare and less special simply because they exist in another world. One of the reasons I like Harry Dresden as a character is that, for all the corniness to his person, he is a true hero but, at the same time, not an inhuman one or one that we simply accept at face value. Harry does what he does because, on some level, he can’t quite figure out what else he would do with himself. It’s a vocation, not something he shouldered because he figured he ought to. He doesn’t have a responsibility to help the helpless – this is constantly pointed out to him – yet he does it anyway. Why? He doesn’t know. He thinks he’s an idiot half the time.

I think folks with the ‘hero complex’ are people who don’t stop to think too hard about why they do what they do. They do it because they can’t imagine the alternative. That guy who runs into his neighbor’s burning house to save their dog is a hero not because he’s smart, but because he has to do that in order to feel normal. Most people wouldn’t. Nobody would blame him if he didn’t. He’s not showing off, he’s not doing it for the glory, he’s doing it because, dammit, if he let the dog die in the house it would bother him, like, forever. Yeah, it’s just a dog, but c’mon – you can hear it yelping, for Christ’s sake! You’re just going to stand there?

And another thing: you know what isn’t heroism? Revenge. Revenge is giving into your base impulses, demeaning yourself to a level of animal. We needn’t even talk of morals here or how it doesn’t solve anything – Revenge is allowing another to dictate your behavior; it is reactive, not proactive. It isn’t heroic, it’s animalistic. Frank Castle is not a hero when he kills the bad guys. If he is a hero, it is for other reasons entirely. Revenge makes for good stories and good drama, but it doesn’t make good heroes. I don’t admire such people, anyway – I understand them, yes, I even sympathize with them, but I don’t admire them.

The guy who jumps into the freezing river to save someone else’s kid? That guy is a hero. I admire him. Maybe he’s stupid, maybe he’s crazy, maybe he isn’t thinking things through, but he had to do it. He couldn’t stand there and watch. It isn’t his responsibility, true, but heroes don’t do heroic things because they’re supposed to. They do them because they can’t help themselves.